Apr 17, 2022
Martin Goodson

The Five Hindrances: 4 | Worry and Flurry

Exercises in Mindfulness

By creating a subtle shift in awareness, we can begin to ease some of the worry and anxiety in our lives.



The fourth hindrance to meditation and a daily life practice of awareness is an abiding state of anxiety or restlessness. Christmas Humphreys, the founder of the Buddhist Society, called this ‘worry and flurry’, which is a good description of the accompanying behaviour. 

States of anxiety are common and there is much talk about why they seem so prevalent today: a faster lifestyle; rampant consumerism coupled with a sense of having to ‘keep up with the Joneses;  lack of social cohesion and an increased sense of alienation created by a breakdown of community as people move around more. No doubt these are all good reasons and contribute to our sense of anxiety, but as the old saying goes: it takes two to tango. 

The Buddha accepted that the nature of the world is ever-changing and that conditions do not remain the same. There are times that are better and worse from the point of view of safety so we are not talking here about ignoring danger.

Fear gives us a heightened sense of our surroundings precisely because at the moment of fear we need to be taking in as much information as possible in order to respond accurately to any threat. This is not ‘hurry & flurry’. If we look at our animal brothers and sisters, we can see how this sort of fear operates and if we consider everything it has taken for them and us to survive this far, we must suppose it works. In fact, if we look again at the wildlife around us, we can see that animals’ lives are considerably more precarious than our own. For the most part it is ‘nature red in tooth and claw.’  On the other hand, many of us humans live in safer times than at any point in history. Yet we continue to feel anxiety. 

Even if we look just a short way back into our own human history, we can see that things could be pretty dire on a day to day basis. Of course, people worried but there was something else that perhaps we have largely forgotten. In the past if one wanted to say that someone was of good character, a favourite phrase to use was ‘God fearing’. This is not to say that people went around in terror of a deity. Rather there was an assumption that ran through all levels of society that, whatever one’s personal ambitions, there was always something greater and more important to consider. An individual might forget this dimension but the symbols of God were everywhere and the eye and the mind could be turned towards them. This ‘God-fearing’ quality became a reminder of our place in the world and the fact that we are here for a short time only. 

In a non-theistic religion like Buddhism this God-fearing is replaced by precisely this sense of the fleeting transience of life. As the Buddha says in the Diamond Sutra;

“How to look upon this fleeting world?

A star at dawn, a bubble on a stream,

 A flash of lightening from a summer cloud.

A flickering flame, a phantom and a dream.”

It is not that we must bow down and feel oppressed by either the deity or the reality of transience, but it helps to remember that we are part of this transient world. Whatever our immediate concerns, the world turns and will keep on turning. It is this sense of eternity that keeps in check the extremes brought on by anxiety and allows us to keep our heads, to keep a perspective and to see when to act and when not to act.

What is the alternative? The Buddha observed that we mistakenly replace the greater ‘other’ with ‘myself’. I become the hub and centre of my universe. Although it seems to make sense to ‘look after number one’ at all costs, this would only be true if we lived as separate islands. However, this is never the case. We live in a world that is interconnected. If we only look to ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘mine’ then we are in danger of sawing off the bough of the tree on which we sit and upon which we depend.

On a day-to-day basis this means that we must occasionally let go of ‘I’ and ‘my wishes’ and make room for others. If the emotional space is not filled with my worry and flurry, if I am not exclusively preoccupied with myself and my opinions, then I can see more clearly. Hopefully I can then respond in accord with the wisdom and compassion of our inborn human nature. The Buddha described this as the route to liberation from suffering. Yet it is something that cannot be accomplished for the benefit of myself alone. It must be done for the benefit of all. 

Text copyright to The Zen Gateway

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